Chapter 26 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The “Nigger Quarter.”

I soon reached the stables, where I was welcomed by a low whimper from my horse. Scipio was not there.

“He is gone upon some other business,” thought I; “perhaps to meet the carriage. No matter, I shall not summon him. The saddle is on, and I can bridle the steed myself—only poor Scipio loses his quarter-dollar.”

I soon had my steed bitted and bridled; and, leading the animal outside, I sprang into the saddle, and rode off.

The path I was taking led past the “negro quarters,” and then through some fields to the dark cypress and tupelo woods in the rear. From these led a cross-way that would bring me out again upon the Levee road. I had travelled this path many a time, and knew it well enough.

The “nigger quarter” was distant some two hundred yards from the “grande maison,” or “big house,” of the plantation. It consisted of some fifty or sixty little “cabins,” neatly built, and standing in a double row, with a broad way between. Each cabin was a facsimile of its neighbour, and in front of each grew a magnolia or a beautiful China-tree, under the shade of whose green leaves and sweet-scented flowers little negroes might be seen all the livelong day, disporting their bodies in the dust. These, of all sizes, from the “piccaninny” to the “good-sized chunk of a boy,” and of every shade of slave-colour, from the fair-skinned quadroon to the black Bambarra, on whom, by an American witticism of doubtful truthfulness; “charcoal would make a white mark!” Divesting them of dust, you would have no difficulty in determining their complexion. Their little plump bodies were nude, from the top of their woolly heads to their long projecting heels. There roll they, black and yellow urchins, all the day, playing with pieces of sugar-cane, or melon-rind, or corn-cobs—cheerful and happy as any little lords could be in their well-carpeted nurseries in the midst of the costliest toys of the German bazaar!

On entering the negro quarter, you cannot fail to observe tall papaw poles or cane-reeds stuck up in front of many of the cabins, and carrying upon their tops large, yellow gourd-shells, each perforated with a hole in the side. These are the dwellings of the purple martin, (Hirundo purpurea)—the most beautiful of American swallows, and a great favourite among the simple negroes, as it had been, long before their time, among the red aborigines of the soil. You will notice, too, hanging in festoons along the walls of the cabins, strings of red and green pepper-pods (species of capsicum); and here and there a bunch of some dried herb of medicinal virtue, belonging to the negro pharmacopoeia. All these are the property of “aunt Phoebe,” or “aunty Cleopatra,” or “ole aunt Phillis;” and the delicious “pepper pot” that any one of those “aunts” can make out of the aforesaid green and red capsicums, assisted by a few other ingredients from the little garden “patch” in the rear of the cabin, would bring water to the teeth of an epicure.

Perhaps on the cabin walls you will see suspended representatives of the animal kingdom—perhaps the skin of a rabbit, a raccoon, an opossum, or the grey fox—perhaps also that of the musk-rat (Fiber zibethicus), or, rarer still, the swamp wild-cat (bay lynx—Lynx rufus). The owner of the cabin upon which hangs the lynx-skin will be the Nimrod of the hour, for the cat is among the rarest and noblest game of the Mississippi fauna. The skin of the panther (cougar) or deer you will not see, for although both inhabit the neighbouring forest, they are too high game for the negro hunter, who is not permitted the use of a gun. The smaller “varmints” already enumerated can be captured without such aid, and the pelts you see hanging upon the cabins are the produce of many a moonlight hunt undertaken by “Caesar,” or “Scipio,” or “Hannibal,” or “Pompey.” Judging by the nomenclature of the negro quarter, you might fancy yourself in ancient Rome or Carthage!

The great men above-named, however, are never trusted with such a dangerous weapon as a rifle. To their skill alone do they owe their success in the chase; and their weapons are only a stick, an axe, and a “’coon-dog” of mongrel race. Several of these last you may see rolling about in the dust among the “piccaninnies,” and apparently as happy as they. But the hunting trophies that adorn the walls do not hang there as mere ornaments. No, they are spread out to dry, and will soon give place to others—for there is a constant export going on. When uncle Ceez, or Zip, or Hanny, or Pomp, get on their Sunday finery, and repair to the village, each carries with him his stock of small pelts. There the storekeeper has a talk with them, and a “pic” (picayune) for the “mussrat,” a “bit” (Spanish real) for the “’coon,” and a “quarter” for the fox or “cat,” enable these four avuncular hunters to lay in a great variety of small luxuries for the four “aunties” at home; which little comforts are most likely excluded from the regular rice-and-pork rations of the plantation.

So much is a little bit of the domestic economy of the negro quarter.

On entering the little village,—for the negro quarter of a grand plantation merits the title,—you cannot fail to observe all of these little matters. They are the salient points of the picture.

You will observe, too, the house of the “overseer” standing apart; or, as in the case of the plantation Besançon, at the end of the double row, and fronting the main avenue. This, of course, is of a more pretentious style of architecture; can boast of Venetian blinds to the windows, two stories of height, and a “porch.” It is enclosed with a paling to keep off the intrusion of the children, but the dread of the painted cowhide renders the paling almost superfluous.

As I approached the “quarter,” I was struck with the peculiar character of the picture it presented,—the overseer’s house towering above the humbler cabins, seeming to protect and watch over them, suggesting the similarity of a hen with her brood of chickens.

Here and there the great purple swallows boldly cleft the air, or, poised on wing by the entrance of their gourd-shell dwellings, uttered their cheerful “tweet—tweet—tweet;” while the fragrant odour of the China-trees and magnolias scented the atmosphere to a long distance around.

When nearer still, I could distinguish the hum of human voices—of men, women, and children—in that peculiar tone which characterises the voice of the African. I fancied the little community as I had before seen it—the men and women engaged in various occupations—some resting from their labour, (for it was now after field hours,) seated in front of their tent-like cabins, under the shade-tree, or standing in little groups gaily chatting with each other—some by the door mending their fishing-nets and tackle, by which they intended to capture the great “cat” and “buffalo fish” of the bayous—some “chopping” firewood at the common “wood-pile,” which half-grown urchins were “toating,” to the cabins, so that “aunty” might prepare the evening-meal.

I was musing on the patriarchal character of such a picture, half-inclined towards the “one-man power”—if not in the shape of a slaveholder, yet something after the style of Rapp and his “social economists.”

“What a saving of state machinery,” soliloquised I, “in this patriarchal form! How charmingly simple! and yet how complete and efficient!”

Just so, but I had overlooked one thing, and that was the imperfectness of human nature—the possibility—the probability—nay, the almost certainty, that the patriarch will pass into the tyrant.

Hark! a voice louder than common! It is a cry!

Of cheerful import? No—on the contrary, it sounds like the utterance of some one in pain. It is a cry of agony! The murmur of other voices, too, heard at short intervals, carries to my ear that deep portentous sound which accompanies some unnatural occurrence.

Again I hear the cry of agony—deeper and louder than before! It comes from the direction of the negro quarter. What is causing it?

I gave the spur to my horse, and galloped in the direction of the cabins.